CARBONDALE — “Happy eclipse, guys!” a young woman on a bicycle called out to complete strangers on a busy Saturday night in the heart of this bustling downstate college town. Happiness seemed a central theme — alongside science, commerce and partying — as tens of thousands of visitors converged for what has been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, the intercession of the clockwork cosmos into our disordered daily doings.

Happy, that is, if the weather holds, an increasingly dicey proposition as clouds moved in Sunday afternoon.

“There are more ways we can get clouds here than not,” said Jim Cantore, a meteorologist and host for The Weather Channel, arriving on the Southern Illinois University campus to do a broadcast, fretting about nearby storm systems. “I’m worried about a few clouds. That would be a disaster.”

OPINION

Rain or shine, clear or cloudy, on Monday the moon will move between the earth and the sun. The 70-mile-wide shadow the moon casts will sweep across the length of the continental United States, starting at Salem, Oregon, at 9:06 a.m., Pacific time, moving southeastward at about 1,500 miles an hour, passing directly over Caspar, Wyoming, where amateur astronomers are having their annual meeting, brushing Kansas City and St. Louis, then reaching Carbondale at 1:21 p.m., plunging the area into darkness for 2 minutes and 39 seconds — 2 seconds shy of the longest period of “totality” in the country, before hurrying onward, reaching Charleston, South Carolina an hour later and passing on to the Atlantic ocean.

Being in the path of “totality,” the moon will completely cover the sun — the two discs are approximately the same size, by a fluke of nature; the sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but also 400 times farther away. With the sun’s blinding photosphere obscured, the sky will turn dark, the stars will come out, insects will grow quiet, and the 60,000 or so who have gathered in Carbondale will see a black disc where the sun should be.

Unless it’s cloudy.

 

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Because Chicago — where forecasters also predict clouds at eclipse time — is 350 miles north, the moon will only cover 87 percent of the sun, a lot, but not enough to make it safe to look at without proper eyewear. Residents cannot look at the partially eclipsed sun without wearing special eclipse glasses. Otherwise, they risk burning their retinas and causing permanent damage that might take weeks or months to appear.

SIU started thinking about this eclipse three years ago, when it received an email from an eclipse watcher in England wondering about their plans, of which there were none. They got busy, along with the town of Carbondale, which was flying a special yellow eclipse flag beside Old Glory. The city of 26,000 has gone through difficult economic times, and, expecting 50,000 free-spending visitors, suspended its open container laws in the downtown district, temporarily, to encourage a carnival mood.

Vendor Christy Lewallen (left) talks to Gail Bell, who attended the Carbondale Eclipse Conic-Con as “a random steam punk character pulled out of the closet.” | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The school realized that its first day of classes this year was to have taken place on the same day as the first total eclipse above Illinois since the Grant administration. So classes got bumped to Tuesday, though the school cannily had its 15,000 students move in last week, so hundreds were available to work everywhere as yellow-shirted volunteers, manning booths and giving directions

“I just think the eclipse is a great event, bringing lots of people to campus and showing them that SIU is a great place to be,” said Bridget Moroney, 19, a sophomore from Downers Grove studying communications.

Eclipses were among the first natural phenomena that humanity began to understand. The Babylonians could predict eclipses, which appear in the Bible and are helpful to archeologists in dating ancient texts that refer to them.

Eclipses have also proven valuable tools for advancing scientific knowledge.

Christine Keepes sells shirts that encourage safe eclipse viewing at an art fair in Carbondale. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

On Aug. 18, 1868, French astronomer Pierre J.C. Janssen, who traveled to India to study the total eclipse, saw an unexpected band of color in a spectroscopic analysis of the sun’s corona and realized he had discovered a heretofore unknown element. A few months later, British astronomer Norman Lockyer confirmed the discovery and, assuming it had to be a metal, named the new element “helium,” from the Greek helios, for sun. It would be 13 years before the element was detected on Earth.

In 1919, an element of Albert Einstein’s new theory of general relativity was proven when scientists used an eclipse to show that the immense gravity of the sun bends light from stars behind it.

Using the eclipse to improve our understanding of the cosmos is to continue, weather permitting, with Monday’s eclipse, which will be tracked across the country by volunteers participating in CATE — or the Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse Experiment.

Sixty-eight teams will use identical 80 mm refractory telescopes to take high definition images of the total eclipse, which will be gathered by NASA into a 90 minute video of the sun’s corona, the analysis of which is hoped will be helpful in understanding the sun’s temperature fluctuations and magnetic qualities. Group 41 of the CATE Experiment is manned by SIU students at a special “dark site” on SIU’s University Farms, one of four CATE locations in Illinois.

“There’s this gap in our knowledge,” Christopher Mandrell, a graduate student involved in the project told the Daily Egyptian. “We’ll see what it looks like in the outer corona. We don’t know what happens in this zone when we can’t look at it.”

How much science will get done if it’s cloudy?

“Not much,” said Mike Kentrianakis, who has viewed 20 eclipses, in Carbondale representing the American Astronomical Society.

The student marching band practices on the Southern Illinois University campus to get ready for Monday’s solar eclipse program, to be held at the campus football stadium on Aug. 21, 2017, in downstate Carbondale. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Clouds or no, there is still money to be made. SIU charged $25 a ticket to fill Saluki Stadium with 14,000 people for the eclipse, and $848 for three nights in a spartan dorm suite with four beds in Schneider Hall — available because the student population is 40 percent lower than it was in the early 1990s, when the university had a national reputation as a party school. The Carbondale Holiday Inn was asking $550 a night.

Local artists created eclipse T-shirts, jewelry, posters and paintings, bakeries made eclipse cookie, and bars offered eclipse drinks. Denny’s dubbed its pancakes “Mooncakes” and offered all you can eat for $4 with a free pair of eclipse glasses thrown in.

There was an art fair, and “Eclipse Comic Con,” which drew participants dressed as comic characters to campus. Blending right in were about 80 members of the media, including the BBC, Swedish television and the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Visitors came from 40 different states.

John Mannion flew in from New York with his wife, Janice Wiesman.

“This is my third try,” said Mannion, who traveled with his family as a youth to see eclipses in Nova Scotia and Georgia, only to be disappointed by the weather. “Now I’m trying again.”

Jim Blair walks Saluki dogs past a solar eclipse exhibit on the campus of Southern Illinois University on Aug. 19, 2017, in downstate Carbondale. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

A “computer guy” with the Bank of New York, he studied weather patterns and came to Carbondale because of “good odds for a sunny day.”

His wife added that “given what happened in Charlottesville” and all the unrest in the country, she hopes the eclipse is visible, because we could benefit from an experience often described as an awesome, spiritual, life-changing, something to remind squabbling Americans that we are only part of an enormous natural system.

“It’s really just physics; it’s astronomy,” she said. “It would be nice if people could get together for something meaningful, if this is a turning point, reminding everybody we are just a tiny little planet in a tiny little galaxy.

Unless of course it rains. If that happens, the Carbondale area can take comfort in the fact that, through another fluke in the cosmos, the next total eclipse here will occur seven years from now, in 2024.

“This is just a dry run,” said Lou Mayo, an astronomer with NASA’s Goddard Space Center.